Storyforth: Where adventure and achievement combine forces

For blog 3.indd

Our best stories are recreated in the intersection between something we care about and something that matters in the world. How often do we associate adventure with “good followship” or achievement with “staying put” when appealing offers are made for another job? This is the power of stories. We learn new ways to see and to engage in our work.

Sophie Lavaud is an amateur mountain climber. She is one of ten women in the world who climbed two 8,000 meter peaks in one season. For Sophie, the adventure started as a bet with a friend to climb Mont Blanc at 4810 meters. “I’m just a normal woman,” Sophie said. “I did it as a follower.” She continued, “Everyone talks about leadership, but we need to learn how to follow too.” Her lessons came from fellow team members and nature itself: “You are not deciding, the elements decide what is next.”

While Sophie spoke, I imagined the wind, the rocks, the soil, and the cold glacier. Born in France and living in Geneva, Sophie prepares for her next climb. She will walk on the Everest with film videographer Francois Damilana to capture “the roof of the world.” When she returns, in her role as a motivational speaker, she will continue to teach us how to move through a wide range of emotions in seemingly impossible moments. This is the generative nature of her work: teaching us how to navigate uncertainty.

Betty-Ann Heggie focuses her current work on mentoring women to find the inner resources to grow and advance in business. Early in her career at Potash Corporation, a worldwide supplier of fertilizer, Betty-Ann was tested to perform work she had never done. She was traveling to a business meeting when she called her office to ‘check in.’ At a public pay phone in the Minneapolis airport, her assistant told her to sit down. Betty-Ann learned that all of senior management had been fired, except one. Common thought dictated that her level of management would be the next to go. During this stressful time, Betty-Ann remembered the words of her mentor who told her, “Times are tough right now, there will be many changes.” Her mentor also told her that he had experienced many cycles in business and that, “Things will turn around again.”

Instead of jumping to another company that offered an attractive job, Betty-Ann stayed and focused on the promises they had made to customers. Former employees were gone, but the work wasn’t. Hearing the words of her mentor made all the difference: “Hang in there, this company needs you.”

Betty-Ann began in a small town in Saskatchewen, Canada. She is the mother of two daughters, and during her 26 years with Potash Corporation, she grew to become their Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations. In 2006, she was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and was subsequently inducted into their Hall of Fame. Then Betty-Ann found the way to combine what she cares about with something that matters in the world by establishing a mentoring program to support the development of mentors worldwide—to bring forward the best in all of us.

We met Sophie and Betty-Ann at the 16th Global W.I.N. Conference in Prague where founder Kristin Engvig invited participants to bring “a more feminine, global, and sustainable vision to work, communities, and life.” This blog is dedicated to all the women and men who find ways to share their expertise and experience with others.

All culture begins with learning.

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Storyforth: Remembering how to listen

For blog 2.indd

At the 16th Global W.I.N. conference in Prague, Jane noticed that I began a storytelling workshop by focusing on empathic inquiry—the ability to listen and ask open questions.

Why is empathic inquiry important?

Because listening to stories engages our attention in meaningful ways. When we sense that a story is authentic, we begin to look for connections in our own work.

This type of listening is different from hearing a list of imperatives given in a Powerpoint presentation. We listen in a deeper way to stories and we begin to ask the question: How can I use this story in meaningful ways?

Jane thought about the potential for connections at work. Then she said, “This reminds me of an experience in a seminar I gave on Finding Hidden Talent.”

Jane said that at the end of that seminar one financial executive stood up and said, “I’m going back to my office to look at all my performance reviews. By listening to these stories today, I realize I have been walking right past all kinds of talent and possibilities.”

The stories helped this executive move beyond his habitual patterns of thoughts.   Jane reflected on this moment: “and the rest followed…that simple act led to multiple actions.”

Stories have action built into their core: character–action, character–action. The sequence of actions in a particular story shows us the possibilities for movement in a new direction—especially once we connect our story with something that matters in our work. We will share examples of these connections in upcoming conversations.

Storytelling changes the way we listen. Action presents a new path.

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Storyforth: Where can it lead you?

For blog 1.indd

In Rome in 2012, and then Prague in 2013, Jane and I became inspired to create Storyforth, a cross-cultural initiative bringing storytelling skills to the workplace.

Jane lives in Singapore. I’m in Boston. When we met, we were both teaching at the annual Women’s International Network (WIN) conference. Against the backdrop of Rome’s night sky, we were surprised to learn that we shared the same degree: Social Ecology (University of California, Irvine, USA).

“This is the first time that I have met someone with my degree,” said Jane.

“Me too,” I replied.

During the decades that followed our graduations, we didn’t expect to meet another person who studied Social Ecology, an interdisciplinary program that taught students to find unusual connections between ideas for today’s human problems. In fact, in the 1970s, Social Ecology offered a new approach to learning in a University setting. Few were familiar with crossing boundaries between disciplines to find new ways to address our current challenges.

Jane and I confessed to each other that the impact of this undergraduate work was profound. Today we both appreciate how these interdisciplinary studies have shaped our approach to work and life—including our methods for teaching storytelling skills.

One year later, our conversations continued at the next global WIN conference, only now surrounded by the artistry of Prague’s old buildings. We discovered that when we earned PhDs, we both conducted research using narrative inquiry and qualitative analysis. In other words, we focused on stories.

When we listen to stories, we see the relationship between the story and our own experiences. We become engaged and that engagement can lead to meaningful action at work.

Action leads to action.

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